Senpai Success Story #3: Meet Sydney, who’s focusing on becoming a JET and interpreter/translator!

Sydney @ Kyoto

[Update June 2019: Sydney’s dream came true!]

Sydney writes: When I previously wrote about my experiences with Japan I mentioned that I was applying for the JET program. I recently learned that I was accepted as a CIR (Coordinator for International Relations) and will be leaving for Japan once again in August. I’ll be placed in Tokushima-Ken (located in Shikoku) and am so excited to experience a part of Japan that I have never seen before. It’s certainly a little nerve-wracking, but I can’t wait to practice my Japanese more and continue to improve. 


Welcome to the 3rd Senpai Success Story, where you can read about others who have walked a unique career path using their Japanese language/cultural skills. If you have your own SSS to share, please read more here. (Psst: Senpai means “mentor” or “teacher,” and the concept is important to understand for anyone wishing to work in a Japanese business setting.)

Hello! My name is Sydney and I graduated from Oakland University with a bachelors in Japanese Language & Literature and a minor in Sociology. Currently I am applying for some programs in Japan such as the JET Program. My ultimate goal is to become either an interpreter or a translator, particularly in a specialized field. 

Why Japanese? 

When I graduated from high school I really didn’t have any real plans or dreams for the future. Although I did well in school, I didn’t have a particular interest in any one subject. More so on a whim than anything else I decided to take Japanese in college, not really knowing if it was something I would stick with. Of course, I did have some previous interest in Japan. I grew up enjoying Japanese games/shows, but I always wanted to learn more about Japan – about the actual culture and, of course, the language. 

Luckily I ended up truly enjoying my Japanese studies. When I first started studying, even learning the hiragana/katakana was a challenge, but there was such a strange satisfaction when I was finally able to get them down. One of the first things that really inspired me to pursue a career using Japanese, rather than just as a hobby, was an event I attended in my first year of college. It was a ‘What can you do with your language degree?’ event where the college had brought in about three guest speakers. One of the speakers in particular really left an impression on me. She was a legal interpreter who spoke quite a few different languages, and just listening to her talk about her work made me want to do something similar with my degree. 

During my third year of a university I was able to go to Japan not once, but twice. I was fortunate to be chosen as a participant in the Kakehashi Project, a program that seeks to deepen relations between the United States and Japan by bringing students into the actual country to learn firsthand about culture. Not long after this I also studied abroad in Shiga-Ken. Both of these experiences further solidified my love of Japan. After this I knew that I not only wanted to use Japanese in my future career, but that I wanted to work and live within Japan as well. 


When I was in my final year of university I was lucky enough to have a kind senpai of my own who helped me with getting an internship at a company called HIROTEC AMERICA. Naturally I was quite nervous about the interview. I knew that Japanese would be a part of the internship, and I also knew that I was far from fluent. However, this was something that I really wanted to try and I figured the worst that could happen would be to not get a call back. 

I don’t remember the specifics of the Japanese questions on the interview, but I do remember there being quite a few kanji that I had yet to learn. There was also a portion where I was asked to translate two pieces of text – one from Japanese to English and one from English to Japanese. At the time I was actually taking the translation courses available at Oakland University, but these texts were a different level of difficulty. However, I remember trying to do my absolute best in the time I was given, quickly researching any important words I didn’t know and trying to make my translations at least semi-coherent. 

I was both shocked and elated when I received a call back offering me the internship. Even though I had a general idea of what the internship entailed, I wasn’t 100% sure of what to expect. Most importantly though, I still worried that my Japanese would be nowhere near good enough. Feeling both nervous and excited, I eagerly waited for the first day of the internship. 

There were certainly many things that I needed to learn, and not just Japanese wise. (Going into the internship I had little experience with programs such as Excel, for example.) One of the first projects I was assigned was to compile a list of interview answers into an Excel document and then to translate the Japanese portions into English. These kind of projects were very important for me though. They forced me to get out of my comfort zone and learn to work with programs that I wasn’t familiar with. 

On the Japanese side, there were naturally quite a few business-centered vocabulary words that I was unfamiliar with. Especially at the beginning I felt like I spent half my time looking up words. However, over time I steadily noticed myself becoming more and more accustomed to these words. Words that I had no clue of when I had started the internship slowly became much more recognizable to me. At the time I was taking a Japanese Business class at university, and there were times when I would know vocabulary/concepts before they were introduced in class thanks to the internship. 

I was actually very lucky at this internship to have such a supporting boss and senpai myself. While I did try to challenge myself and work through problems individually, it was comforting to know that I could always ask for help if needed. Often times I was taught easier ways to work with Excel, or ways to make my translations sound more natural. Especially concerning language studies, it can be quite a difficult subject to go alone. If there’s something you don’t know and you are lucky enough to have someone who can help you, I would always suggest reaching out to them. (And of course being available to help others out once you start to get a knack for it.) 


My first bit of advice to anyone who is truly interested in Japanese (or honestly any language) would be to keep going at it. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to have people look down on language majors. “Really? You went into debt for that?” “Why not engineering, medicine, -insert other major here-? They make more money.” If you decided on a language major than you’ve probably heard things quite similar to this. What people don’t realize is how important language really is. This world is more connected now than it has ever been and it’s translators/interpreters who help to facilitate communication. 

I would also suggest that if you are looking into an internship, job, or even something like study abroad, to go ahead and try it. It can be intimidating, and even frustrating, trying to make your way ‘into the Japanese world’ so to speak. However, it doesn’t hurt to apply. It’s important to step out of your comfort zone and to challenge yourself. Even if you’re not ready for a job or internship yet, look into studying abroad. Living in another country and forcing yourself to hone your language abilities is certainly one way to step out of your comfort zone – and a great way to improve yourself as well. 

My final piece of advice would be to always be humble. I’ve always thought this to be an important trait in general, but it is extra important in regards to Japanese culture. It’s important to keep in mind just how much you don’t know. Especially in regards to language studies, there is always something new that you can learn. Language is ever changing and all we can do is try our best to keep up with those changes. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top